The science (and business) of the munchies

The medicinal marijuana business is booming, and new questions are arising about the wide accessibility and growth in the number of dispensaries in Arizona.

There also are questions about the overall health risks of marijuana use, not to mention the relative ease with which medical marijuana can be obtained.

But there is another little-discussed issue that has been around since the days when pot became a cultural marker of a generation in the late 1960s and into the 1970s:

The munchies.  That is, the well-known side effect of marijuana smoking that makes some users ravenously hungry.

We’ve all heard the jokes. But what about the science?

That, it turns out, is also of renewed interest. For example, The Smithsonian magazine in February published an article by Joseph Stromberg that discusses the science, and begins this way:

It’s one of the most well-known effects of marijuana: The powerful surge in appetite many users feel after smoking or injesting the drug, colloqually known as “the munchies.  For medicinal users that have trouble eating due to chemotherapy, this can be one of the drug’s biggest benefits. For recreational users, this benefit can also be rather enjoyable, if unkind on the waistline. But for years, scientists have struggled to understand how marijuana’s active ingredient—tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC—stimulates appetite. A new study published today in Nature Neuroscience brings us a bit closer to solving the mystery…”

In Arizona, the first medicinal marijuana dispensaries opened in late 2012 after the 2010 voter-approved law that allows those people with doctor’s recommendations to get a state-issued card. Having a card allows one up to 2 ½ ounces of marijuana every two weeks for medicinal purposes.

Most legal marijuana shops didn’t open their doors until later in 2013, and now the state has 71 dispensaries. If you are not within 25 miles of a dispensary,  Arizona law permits you to grow your own pot.

The creeping legalization of medical marijuana, accompanied by growing relaxation of laws against possession of pot in some areas, has caused more people to be a lot less coy about marijuana use.

“I like to smoke for several reasons. Sometimes I like to smoke because it is relaxing, or sometimes because it makes my friends and I giggle and have fun,” said Bailey Krouse, a college student in Tucson who is an occasional marijuana smoker.

On the medicinal front, some of the benefits for medical marijuana users are:   It is an active pain reliever; it can prevent or help with opiate addiction; it can treat epilepsy and Tourette’s; and it can also help with other neurological damage such as strokes or concussions according to Policymic.com, a youth-oriented general news and analysis website that has published numerous articles (like this one) on the social, cultural and medical ramifications of the medicinal pot trend.

According to Webmd.com, some of the best-known side effects from the leafy green plant include dry mouth, dizziness, panic reactions, headache, sexual problems and others. However, the equally famous food (and often junk-food)-oriented  side effect — the munchies — is finally being served up on the scientific and cultural discussion menus.

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Spreadshirt.com

While we’re all aware of the popularity of the leafy green plant, there’s a question that lingers more than the skunky smell: How do users deal with munchies?

“It is a big benefit for some people, and a lot of people see edibles or marijuana as a life savior,” said Murray Stein, managing partner at The Green Halo dispensary in Tucson.

Munchies occur because the THC in the plant convinces the brain that it is starving, when it might actually only be grooving to music or a spirited conversation in an otherwise adequately nourished body.

“THC appears to increase our sensitivity to scents and flavors by using naturally occurring neural networks,” Stromberg says in the article in The Smithsonian.

After experiments were done, scientists came to the conclusion that one of the reasons marijuana users get the munchies is also because THC considerably increases the ability to smell food.  Given that food generally has an enticing smell, the results are clear.

Recreational culture aside, people who are going through chemotherapy and experience a medically troublesome loss in appetite can use medical marijuana — and the munchies — as a huge benefit, medicinal marijuana proponents point out.

“The intense mix of drugs puts you off to food,” Stein said of treatments like chemotherapy. “Anything that stimulates appetite is good,” he added.

For recreational users, however, the common side effect might not be so beneficial, since the munchies can  become your waistline’s biggest enemy.

There are strategies besides just-saying-no to junk food, of course. “I try to keep healthy snacks in the house to make it easier to resist the unhealthy temptations, but sometimes it is nearly impossible,” said Krouse.

With more states decriminalizing pot, and Colorado now making it legal in certain small quantities, fast-food workers and grocery store clerks may be taking up more shifts if the munchies epidemic catches on.

In February, an enterprising 13-year-old Girl Scout, Danielle Lei and her mom, Carol, applied basic marketing strategy — and set up shop and sold cookies in front of a San Francisco cannabis clinic, The Green Cross.

girlscoutsCustomer’s munchies stood no chance as the brightly colored boxes of Thin Mints, Tagalongs, and Samoas stood in a row and practically begged to be eaten.

Within two hours, the young Girl Scout had sold 117 boxes.

“The Green Cross was on board as soon as Carol called to ask for permission to sell cookies outside, and employees at the clinic bought plenty of cookies themselves, too,” according to many news articles, including this one in Mashable.com.

Sixteen states have decriminalized marijuana possession by passing laws that treat the act similar to a traffic violation. In other words, if caught with marijuana in your possession you get a little slap on the wrist and your sent on your way.

“All it takes is a text to a neighbor and I can usually have weed in my hands within 15 minutes,” said Krouse.

peepsRecently, there even was a widely celebrated official “4:20″ worldwide marijuana holiday, April 20 (4-20 on the calendar), which happened to coincide this year with Easter. Effects on stockpiles of Easter treats like Peeps are unknown, but prospects seemed good.

“Last year, 420 was the biggest sales day we had. At the time there were only two dispensaries in town, we were one of them. So we do foresee a greater sale this year. For us, it’s patient appreciation day,” said Stein.

Last year Arizona’s medical marijuana patients consumed close to three tons of weed and this year on-the-record sales could boost as high as 10 tons because of the dispensaries now in the state’s most populated areas.

“It is a new, exciting industry. We get to help patients every day, and that is very gratifying,” said Stein.

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